Special session on road and bridge money beginning

Published 12:15 pm Thursday, August 23, 2018

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Finding money for roads and bridges is the focus of a special session Mississippi lawmakers are opening Thursday.

Republican leaders have outlined a package to divert existing tax revenue, take on debt and create a lottery.

“It’s time to get this done,” Gov. Phil Bryant said Thursday before the session began. “We don’t need to wait another week, another month.”

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Bryant was forced this year to issue an emergency order closing a number of county bridges after the federal government threatened to yank the state’s highway funding when some counties refused to close bridges on their own. The Office of State Aid Road Construction reports 437 closed county bridges statewide as of Tuesday. Another 1,700-plus bridges have weight limits.

House Speaker Philip Gunn proposes diverting 35 percent of the tax collected on internet and catalog sales to cities and counties, which would have been worth $90 million of the $257 million collected in the 12 months ended June 30. The outline of Bryant’s proposal issued in the call says that cities and counties could spend new money only on repair, maintenance or reconstruction of roads and bridges.

The lottery measure would create a lottery corporation run by directors appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. Proceeds would be earmarked for spending by the Mississippi Department of Transportation for 10 years, along with proceeds from a tax on sports betting and increased registration taxes on electric and hybrid vehicles.

Reeves and Gunn said the overall plan would provide about $100 million a year in continuing revenue to local governments and another $100 million a year to the state Department of Transportation.

Lawmakers could borrow up to $300 million more for immediate work, paying back debt with revenue from an existing casino tax.

Legislative Democrats, in the minority in both the House and Senate, said Republican leaders were pushing forward with too little public discussion about what a transportation funding plan should include.

“It’s not right to do this in secret; it’s not right to do this in a hurry,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, an Amory Democrat.

Bryant, though, said he, Gunn and Reeves have been working on a plan since the regular session ended in April.
“This was not done overnight or behind closed doors,” Bryant said.

Lawmakers could also debate an agreement on how the state should spend $700 million in economic damage payments from BP PLC after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Legislative leaders are discussing dividing that money, giving 75 percent to the three coastal counties and 25 percent to the rest of the state.